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Wilcox is cleaning out the CMS attic, and Olympic’s experiment is a first sweep

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has been suspended with pay, but district officials have refused to say why.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has been suspended with pay, but district officials have refused to say why. Observer file photo

If recent leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have swept in with plans to refurbish the house, Clayton Wilcox is the guy who says he’ll clean out the attic first.

The coming changes at Olympic High will offer a glimpse of what that may look like.

Unlike such high-profile predecessors as Peter Gorman and Heath Morrison, Wilcox has yet to unveil any slogans or signature reform projects. Instead, he says, he sees CMS as a successful district that has let too many initiatives pile up past their expiration date.

Olympic’s experiment with splitting one campus into five small schools has lasted 12 years. That’s an eternity in the world of school reform, where leadership churn and the intractability of challenges make it much easier to launch turnaround quests than to sustain them.

Consider: Olympic Principal Pamela Espinosa got approval for the five-school split from Superintendent James Pughsley in 2005. He left CMS soon after, and Wilcox is the sixth superintendent to hold the job since then.

Espinosa at Olympic
Principal Pamela Espinosa gives Superintentenent Peter Gorman a tour of the newly-split Olympic High on the first day of school in 2006. Gorman was one of six superintendents who inherited the small-school experiment at Olympic before Clayton Wilcox decided to end it. T.ORTEGA GAINES Staff Photographer

CMS tried the five-school model at Garinger High as well as Olympic, but pulled the plug on that in 2011, citing inconsistent leadership and performance. That’s one of the concerns Wilcox has raised about Olympic.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major proponent of turning big schools into small ones, provided grant money to Olympic. But it was already backing away from that effort by the time Olympic’s small schools opened in 2006, citing lack of data that such splits made a difference. The Coalition of Essential Schools, another major supporter, disbanded itself last spring.

Over the years Olympic leaders’ focus shifted to the career academy model advocated by the New York-based NAF, where smaller academies exist within a large school but don’t require a full split. The result: The Olympic campus now has five small schools and five NAF academies overlaid on them.

Hearing insiders talk about the resulting structure can be mind-boggling even for those conversant with education jargon: TEAM and METS combine to form the NAF Academy of Engineering. They’re also part of EMT, which stands for ELED, METS and TEAM, which are acronyms for three small schools supervised by one principal.

That’s some of the clutter Wilcox plans to clear when he unites the campus and names one principal.

And the process should interest people outside the Olympic zone, because Wilcox says he’ll use similar strategies to redesign other high schools.

Such change starts with listening to parents, faculty and school leaders, Wilcox said – and includes attempts to get outside what he called “the echo chamber” of people who are deeply invested in the current structures.

The changes at Olympic have one unlikely supporter: Espinosa, who retired from CMS in 2012 but continues to fill in when schools have administrative vacancies.

“The small schools really were a tool that served its purpose,” Espinosa said Wednesday. The grants helped pay for teachers, parents and students to visit schools that embodied the best of the vision, she said, which helped improve Olympic’s culture. Partnerships with nearby businesses and industries flourished.

But when she hears Wilcox say it’s time to streamline administration and bring back a sense of Olympic unity, she doesn’t argue. She hopes he can pull off the change while preserving the best of her 12-year experiment.

“I’m impressed with him,” she said. “I’m feeling pretty confident.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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